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Friday, September 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon": John Lennon documentary is also a love story

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon," a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, violent images and drug references. Metro, Uptown.

A music documentary that puts the music in the background, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's engrossing "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" presents the former Beatle as an oft-persecuted peace activist and as a loving husband and father. "When he met Yoko," says longtime Ono/Lennon friend Elliot Mintz, "he found the rest of his voice."

Appropriately, the film does not present Lennon's life story (though a childhood photo shows an early version of that confident, slightly jokey Lennon smile), nor does it go much into the Beatles phenomenon. But Leaf and Scheinfeld establish early on Lennon's lightning-rod relationship with controversy, with the young musician's early and much-misconstrued comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. We hear a Ku Klux Klan member criticizing the Beatles, and see a huge public bonfire organized in which to throw Beatles paraphernalia. Lennon seemed not cowed by this, but frustrated.

All this, though, is preamble: This John story is really a John-and-Yoko story, and though many voices chime in (Mario Cuomo, George McGovern, Angela Davis and Gore Vidal are among the film's many talking heads), Ono's presence permeates it. Almost hiding behind a large hat and glasses perched low on her nose, she speaks quietly of her life with John (ended, tragically, by his 1980 assassination), and of the change they believed they were creating as peace activists.

No part of their lives was kept closed; their famous 1969 wedding and "bed-in" honeymoon, with John and Yoko wearing charmingly chaste white pajamas, is shown here in extensive footage. "We're selling it [peace] like soap," says John.

The film also presents intriguing details about the Nixon administration's investigation and attempted deportation of Lennon (his green card, held up for many years, was finally awarded in 1976), and shows much footage of the musician talking to reporters, not all of whom are supportive. Distancing himself from his Beatles past, he says simply, "I've grown up." A New York reporter isn't buying it. "You're making yourself ridiculous," she says.

Though Lennon's commitment to a peaceful world is vivid and unquestionable, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" ultimately emerges as a picture of a different kind of commitment: a love story.

In amateur footage and newsreels, Lennon and Ono frolic for the camera but have eyes only for each other; in one shot, pulling close for an impromptu, lighthearted dance. In another shot, Lennon gently brushes his wife's hair away from her face, the gesture of a man in love. It's a touching, poignant reminder of a tuneful story that ended too soon.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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